By Richard Lough
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France's wartime hero Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed Britain's attempts to join the European Economic Community in the 1960s, convinced the country was a poor fit for Europe.
Five decades later, President Emmanuel Macron seems to have concluded that de Gaulle was right and has emerged as a leading proponent of a swift British exit from today's European Union.
At a two-day summit in Brussels that ended on Friday his message to Britain was blunt - ratify our hard-won divorce deal, present a new plan or leave without a deal on April 12. Britain had sought an extension until June 30.
An ardent Europhile, Macron is deeply frustrated by how the festering Brexit crisis has distracted the EU from pursuing deeper cooperation and reconnecting with increasingly disillusioned voters.
He also fears that a postponed Brexit will mean Britain has to take part in European Parliament elections in late May and that this could boost populist, eurosceptic parties in France and elsewhere. With a seat still at the table, Britain could also hamper progress in EU budget discussions and other issues.
"The European project must not remain hostage to Brexit," Macron said on Friday after EU leaders handed British Prime Minister Theresa May a final chance to leave the bloc in an orderly fashion.
"FRANCE DIDN'T CHOOSE THIS"
Even as Ireland, Germany and others adopted a softer tone during a fraught seven-hour debate on Thursday, Macron was adamant: "We are ready for Brexit. France didn’t choose this, the British people did. We can feel sorry about it, but we have had time to prepare for it."
Macron's comments, some EU officials said, seemed to reflect a belief that the bloc might be better off without Britain, which has long resisted moves towards closer European integration, for example by staying out of the euro currency and the passport-free Schengen zone.
Commenting on Macron's European ambitions, one senior EU diplomat even compared the French centrist leader to Charlemagne, the mediaeval emperor who united much of western and central Europe in a polity that did not include Britain.
"The tragedy is, he cannot be Charlemagne," he said, in a reference to the many divisions dogging the modern EU, "but he can be a de Gaulle (by saying 'non' to London)."
Macron is also very aware that a no-deal Brexit would badly hurt France and other northern EU states as well as Britain by disrupting business and raising restrictions to trade.
But a second EU diplomat said a centuries-old rivalry between France and Britain might be resurfacing.
"It doesn't make sense economically but is driven by the illusion of returning to their (French) dominant role in the 1950s," the diplomat added.
In the 1950s, France took the lead in setting up, with five other countries, what would eventually become today's 28-nation EU, while Britain declined an invitation to join.
Britain finally joined in 1973, after de Gaulle had died.
(Reporting by Richard Lough and Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2019 03:06:52 IST